Putin’s Security Forces Are Increasingly Unsure About Putin
Anti-government protests are growing, and the Kremlin doesn’t have stormtroopers willing to mount a crackdown.
Suppose you ordered a crackdown and nobody came? The continuing protests in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, triggered by the arrest of the elected local governor, do not simply demonstrate pent-up dissatisfaction toward Vladimir Putin’s regime—they also demonstrate some of the potential limitations of its control over the security forces. As the Kremlin seems to be pivoting toward a renewed campaign of repression, the question of the morale and loyalty of its enforcers becomes crucial.
Thousands of protesters have turned out every weekend since July 9, when the Khabarovsk region’s governor, Sergei Furgal, was arrested on 15-year-old murder-conspiracy charges. This is less about Furgal himself so much as a widespread local discontent about a government they feel only notices the territories outside Moscow’s MKAD beltway when it is time to tax them.
What has been particularly striking, though, has been that although none of the protests have been authorized, the local police have not tried to control them. This weekend, six protesters out of maybe 10,000 were detained: Two protesters were sentenced to a week behind bars, two were fined 10,000 rubles ($134) each, and two more were held overnight then cut loose. Compared with how protests elsewhere in Russia have been handled, this was positively benign.
It is not as if Khabarovsk lacks for security forces. Along with its regular police, it has an OMON riot police unit, a SOBR SWAT team, an Independent National Guard Motorized Battalion and Interior Troop Brigade, and the 21st “Typhoon” Special Designation Commando Detachment. As if that were not enough, as a key city along the Chinese border, the army’s Eastern Military District is headquartered there, and there is also a regional headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB).
Yet the police have not just done little to prevent the protests; they have also escorted the marches and fraternized with demonstrators who chanted “thank you, police” after officers handed out face masks. Even the fearsome National Guard have left them be, demonstrating what one observer said was obvious sympathy for them.
The latest demonstration also coincided with the annual holiday of the VDV, Russia’s paratroopers. Veterans of wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria, waving flags and sporting their distinctive blue-and-white striped shirts, joined the march.
Meanwhile, the investigators of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Investigative Committee, and the FSB may be compiling reports for the day they are unleashed, but so far they have been noticeably quiet. Indeed, when claims surfaced in Moscow that the protests were instigated by professional malcontents from outside the city, maybe even prompted by the United States, local prosecutors gave off-the-record briefings denying them.
In part, it is simply that no one has any appetite for a showdown so long as the protests are—largely—confined to a single city and still have local opinion on their side. The Kremlin can afford to wait and simply suppress any mention of Khabarovsk in the mass media.
However, this hesitation also seems to reflect the unease Moscow is feeling about how far it could rely on its security forces in a crisis that would pit them against the local population.
Since 2011, when major reforms even saw them finally drop the Soviet-era name “militia,” the police have been engaged in a serious effort to reconnect with the Russian public. Although they are still viewed with suspicion, they are nonetheless much better regarded now than a decade ago.
This works both ways, though. Their disinclination to play the role of Kremlin stormtrooper led to the creation of the National Guard in 2016 under Viktor Zolotov, a former head of Putin’s personal security team and a man with a reputation for heavy-handed loyalty.
Most police, National Guard, and even FSB officers will spend their careers in the same city or region. They will marry, make friends, and generally be part of the local community—they often feel the same pressures and injustices as their neighbors.
Just as importantly, most of their commanders will also stay put. In Soviet times, the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) and the KGB—predecessor of the FSB—liked to move them around to prevent them developing local loyalties. Since then, this practice has fallen into disuse. Except for a handful of high-fliers, they know their chances of making it to the more prestigious—and lucrative—jobs in Moscow are minimal. Instead, the local business and political elite are their peers, their friends, and the people on whose corrupt schemes they will rely for their enrichment.
For example, Maj. Gen. Sergei Kraev, the commander of the National Guard’s Khabarovsk region forces, has served there since he left the army in 1994.
It is telling that rumors circulated that OMON riot police from Rostov or Novosibirsk were being drafted into Khabarovsk because Moscow did not know if it could trust local forces. After all, their commanders profess their loyalty to the center, but until these are put to the test, even the Kremlin cannot know how they will react. In the hard-line August Coup against the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, even though the heads of the KGB and MVD were behind it, the police and even many security officers were not.
Nor, for that matter, was the army. The military remains the largest armed force in Russia, and while Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appears to be a strong Putin loyalist, number-crunching of the votes for recent constitutional changes from military towns suggests the soldiers were evenly split for and against the Kremlin’s revisions—even though the official overall figure was 78 percent in favor. At the very least, they show no evidence of especially fervent commitment to the regime.
None of this means that the services are likely to turn on Putin or that any serious crisis is imminent. Nor does it mean that we can expect a kinder, gentler Kremlin. Rather, as protests subside to a more manageable level, the government will likely then decide to be more assertive. However, the very sense that it is having to more carefully calibrate its use of repression suggests that the Kremlin, while clearly seeking to reestablish its authority, is conscious that it would be wise not to test the loyalties of its enforcers too far.
It also opens up an interesting new flank for the opposition. Members of the security forces are increasingly willing to express criticisms of the government and their own conditions. In May, Vladimir Vorontsov, the ex-cop behind the unofficial Police Ombudsman website campaigning on officers’ issues, was arrested in a clear sign of the authorities’ sensitivities about this. In an equally clear sign of how the police felt, many even went public in criticizing the arrest.
Meanwhile, the activist leader Alexei Navalny has reached out to police and National Guard alike, even after Zolotov surreally challenged him to a duel, while Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter-turned-critic, has openly called for efforts to win over the security forces. The Khabarovsk protests are not going to bring down Putin—but they have highlighted that one of the key fronts in any future efforts to do so will be in the hearts and minds of his praetorians.